China Is Building Fake Islands to Bolster Its Claim to Disputed Waters

Pity the poor mapmaker assigned to the South China Sea. The hotly disputed waters in the Pacific are torn between competing claims from all the countries that surround it. China, especially, has been aggressive and sly. It's now dumping sand onto small reefs and shoals, building whole new islands to bolster its territorial claims.

The long list of countries with a claim to the South China Sea also includes Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand, and many are not happy about China's island building. Why do they care so much about this tiny patch of the Pacific? A third of the world's shipping passes through the South China Sea, and huge oil and gas reserves are believed to lie beneath it.

There's no shortage of islands in the sea already; China has just decided to circumvent natural geography. Hundreds of tiny, mostly uninhabited islands dot the South China Sea, and it's ownership of these islands that determines who can lay claim to the surrounding waters. Since January, China has built three or four new islands in the Spratly archipelago near the Philippines.

If China can build up these islands, it could claim an exclusive economic zone 200 nautical miles around each one under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. That's also why China's been pouring money into Yongxing—a tiny, square mile-sized natural island in another part of the sea near Vietnam—to build an airport, hospital, banks, schools, and roads. The island expansions have also sparked fears the country's planning a military presence in the South China Sea.

Just last month, a Chinese state-owned oil rig parked near Vietnam's islands strained diplomatic relations and set off violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. An island is a lot harder to move than an oil rig. [New York Times]

Top image: Surveillance plane photo of a Chinese vessel expanding the Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands. AP Photo/Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, File